Lessons on Leadership from The Best Damn Band in the Land

Mike Figliuolo

I was lucky enough to attend the Ohio State vs. Nebraska football game at Ohio State last fall. It was a raucous affair in which OSU pounded Nebraska into submission. But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the halftime show by The Best Damn Band In The Land. They showed me something that I knew I needed to share the minute I saw it.

During that halftime show, the OSU band demonstrated what true teamwork looks like and displayed the amazing impact that can be achieved when everyone on the team executes their role flawlessly.

The halftime show was a tribute to video games. The band formed the shape of a horse that was 55 yards long and then set it off galloping. It was nothing short of amazing. Imagine 100,000 people hanging out during halftime enjoying the show, but also chatting with friends and eating hot dogs. All of a sudden, the horse takes form and people applaud. Then it starts galloping. The place went absolutely insane. And when the horse reared up on its hind legs, you would have thought OSU just won the national championship.

This was teamwork art in action. You can learn a few things as a leader from their performance:

Dare to dream big. The band leaders had a big dream for this show. They set out audacious goals to do things that hadn’t been done before. Imagine the conversation in the band room: “Hey! I know! Let’s make a giant horse! And better yet…LET’S MAKE IT RUN DOWN THE FIELD!” Talk about giving your team something to rally behind! Set audacious goals for your team. Dare to be great and try new things. You’ll never amaze anyone with your little incremental ideas.

Execute small but paint a big picture. When you look at the guidance each band member received, it was likely small and tactical. Walk here. Turn there. Play this sequence of notes. Duck under the trombone slide. Tons and tons of small steps targeted at an individual team member. Multiply that by the dozens of members of the team and you have a bunch of small steps that have to be remembered and flawlessly executed by a large number of people (sorta like your organization, right?).

What was different here is EVERY member of that band knows how they contribute to the big picture and what that big picture looks like. I’m sure they were provided with a detailed description of what they were building toward and they were able to make the connection between their hundreds of steps, turns, notes and movements and the broader horse galloping down the field. When people understand their role in the big picture, you’re able to gain their commitment to executing their steps of the process properly. They understand that if they fail, the whole organization fails. Absent that big picture, missing a step or a note doesn’t seem as important in their minds. Paint that big picture to get them bought in to execute flawlessly.

Train. Train. Train. I guarantee they didn’t make that horse gallop on the first try. More likely, they created a horse that should have been sent to the glue factory. That said, it’s easy to see they put in countless hours training for the big show. Their leadership was relentless in pushing the team to perform perfectly but at the same time kept the team’s motivation up by reminding them of their role in the big picture. That big picture also created peer pressure to perform because the team members felt accountable to one another to not screw up. Don’t be afraid to put your team through their paces and make them train hard for the big events.

Shine the spotlight on them. At the end of the performance, all the cheers were for the team. No leaders stepped forward to claim credit or bask in the glory of the performance. It was clear all the shouting and applause was for every individual walking on that field. When your team succeeds, try stepping back from the spotlight and push them forward. Give them the credit they deserve and deflect credit that comes your way onto them. Nothing builds loyalty more than a leader who is willing to put their team first. Remember that the next time your team is wildly successful in their endeavors.  

Mike Figliuolo is the Founder and Managing Director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC, a leadership consultancy, and the author of “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.”